The Sleeping Beauty by Elizabeth Taylor

I have written before about my love of Elizabeth Taylor’s fiction, the beautifully-observed stories of the minutiae of middle-class life, the loneliness, insecurities and poignancy that often accompanies such an existence, especially for women. The Sleeping Beauty – a loose re-working of the age-old fairy tale – is no exception to this rule. In style, it feels very much in line with much of Taylor’s other work, ensemble pieces like A View of the Harbour and The Soul of Kindness, with the focus moving from one individual to another as their lives intertwine.

The setting for this novel is Seething, a small seaside town in the early 1950s. Vinny – a rather smooth man in his late forties – is visiting an old friend, Isabella, whose husband has just died in a boating accident. At first sight, Vinny might appear to be a kindly, compassionate individual, coming to comfort Isabella in her hour of need. However, Isabella’s adult son, Laurence, has other ideas, viewing Vinny’s apparent sympathy towards his mother with resentment and suspicion.

While staying in Seething, Vinny spots a beautiful woman walking along the beach, and he is instantly captivated by her aura. The woman in question is Emily, the ‘Sleeping Beauty’ of the novel’s title, whose situation, he subsequently discovers, was fundamentally altered by a devastating car accident some years before. Previously outgoing and sociable, Emily now lives a very narrow and secluded life, effectively tied to the guest house owned by her embittered sister, Rose, whose husband died in the incident.

Also living at the guest house is Philly, Rose’s disabled daughter, whom Emily effectively cares for while her sister adopts the role of martyr in charge of the family business. While Emily is still a very beautiful woman, her appearance was fundamentally altered as a consequence of the accident, something she has yet to come to terms with alongside other changes in her life. (The fact that Emily’s former fiancée deserted her while she was recovering in hospital has only added to the air of tragedy.)

Vinny is a romantic, with a tendency to live in the past and future as opposed to the present, someone who gives the impression that they are not the marrying type.

Inability to cross the gap from wooing to lovemaking and many unconcluded love affairs, had left him [Vinny] with a large circle of women friends. They bore him no ill-will, valuing his continued attention—presents, compliments; their pique soon vanished. They married, loved, elsewhere. Only very stupid husbands resented Vinny. (pp. 68–69)

Nevertheless, Vinny is so smitten with Emily that he wishes to propose marriage, hopeful of freeing her from the imprisonment imposed by Rose. Isabella, on the other hand, is looking forward to being the beneficiary of Vinny’s affection. Not that she wants to marry him, of course; rather, she is hoping to bask in an ongoing glow of attention – regular lunches in town, a well-chosen gift or two, and the pleasure of demurring to his annual proposals.

The thought of her gay and tender rejection had been her chief comfort in the last few weeks: it had been constantly rehearsed. She [Isabella] had daydreamed of a future secure in his gallantry and affection; with occasional luncheons together; always his wistful teasing; the proposal renewed on every—say—St Valentine’s Day, half as a private joke, but nevertheless with true pleading. He would shore up her pride and look at her through kindly eyes. (p. 79)

As the narrative plays out, we see different sides to these characters as their insecurities and anxieties come to the surface, and their flaws and imperfections are gradually revealed. Rose is fearful of losing Emily to Vinny, thereby disturbing the caretaker role she has carefully cultivated over the years. This desire prompts Rose to disrupt the blossoming of Emily and Vinny’s relationship as far as possible – and yet there are times when the reader might feel a smidgen of sympathy for Rose as certain facts about her deceased husband become clear.

There are secrets too in Vinny’s life which Isabella discovers by accident, circumstances that put a completely different complexion on the acceptability of her friend’s behaviour.

As ever with Taylor, the minor characters are wonderful – fully fleshed-out and lifelike on the page. Vinny’s mother, Mrs Tumulty, is an excellent case in point, a forthright woman who doesn’t suffer fools gladly – someone who values briskness over beauty, as evidenced by her responses during a trip to Seething.

She was pleasurably suspicious of Vinny’s seaside weekends and intended to sort things out, especially the women. Isabella she had met once before and thought her a poor, silly creature. Rose had made a better impression; Emily a much worse one. Mrs Tumulty had no especial grudge against beauty, as long as it did not detract from liveliness. Anything passive she abhorred, and Emily’s dead-white skin, her lack of expression, about which Vinny had found no words to forewarn her, no heart to explain or discuss, annoyed and repelled her. (pp. 53–54)

As Vinny’s relationship with Emily develops, Mrs Tumulty realises that she has been used as a patsy, something to justify Vinny’s continued visits to the guest house where she is staying.

Isabella’s son, Laurence, is another interesting character, somewhat directionless in life following the death of his father. There is much sly humour when Laurence receives a visit from his friend, Len – a bit of a ladies’ man who knows just how to play up to Isabella with a combination of showy attentiveness and flattery.

Alongside other entanglements there is Laurence’s burgeoning romance with Betty, a nursemaid who works for one of the families at Rose’s guest house. A tea party hosted by Isabella turns out to be an uncomfortably amusing set-piece as Laurence finds himself the target of his mother’s needling, much to the detriment of Betty. In short, Isabella behaves abominably, like a spoilt child at a party, something that Vinny points out to her once the others have departed.

While many other readers would not name The Sleeping Beauty as one of their favourite Elizabeth Taylor novels, I found it utterly involving. What I love about this author’s work are the insights she brings to her characters’ inner lives, their thoughts and interactions with others, and how their experiences and preoccupations reveal themselves over time. There is a combination of depth, complexity and validity to these individuals that makes them feel human, complete with emotions and motivations that remain relevant some seventy years after publication.

As a writer, Taylor implies that she visualises her stories as scenes, writing from the perspective of situation as opposed to narrative or plot. It’s an approach that rings true for this novel along with her other ensemble pieces – the action, such as it is, stemming from the sequencing of these scenarios.

It would be unfair of me to reveal how the relationship between Vinny and Emily progresses, you’ll have to read the novel for yourself to find out. Nevertheless, given that this is also considered to be Taylor’s most romantic novel, I’ll finish with a quote about love, one that highlights the disruption it can trigger, especially within others. It’s a riposte to the idealised vision of this emotion and all its rose-tinted associations.

Love is a disturbing element, as Isabella had said–disruptive, far-reaching. The world cannot assimilate it, or eject it. Its beauty can evoke evil: its radiance corrupts… (p. 149)

The Sleeping Beauty is published by Virago; personal copy.

41 thoughts on “The Sleeping Beauty by Elizabeth Taylor

  1. Tredynas Days

    Elements of this sound similar to AVOT Harbour, which I read recently. Another to look forward to – she’s a great favourite of mine, as she clearly is with you, Jacqui.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, there are similarities with A View of the Harbour, for sure. Both novels are set in sleepy seaside/harbour towns, both are ensemble pieces where the lives of various characters connect and intertwine. The Sleeping Beauty has a more ‘romantic’ feel than AVOTH, but it’s not without those melancholy moments that Taylor does so well. You’d like it, I think.

      Reply
  2. Claire 'Word by Word'

    A wonderful evocative review Jacqui, this sounds like such a cosy read, Elisabeth Taylor a reliable source for the ‘character insight’ novel. It made me think of my recent read of Kent Haruf, Our Souls at Night, his characters search for comfort in each other, few support it, while others tend to judge, seek to undermine it, behave in ways that reveal as much about their own needs. Delightful!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thank you! She is a wonderful observer of human nature, often catching her characters in their most private of moments. I must read the Haruf! It sounds excellent, and I know the style will appeal from my experience with his Plainsong trilogy. For some reason, your comments on how his characters seek comfort in one another, while some seek to judge or undermine their actions reminds me a little of Olive Kitteridge. Perhaps it’s the prickly nature of some of the interactions, the defence mechanisms we set up to shield ourselves from further heartache and pain. Anyway, the Taylor is an excellent book, definitely my kind of ‘comfort’ reading as she never fails to deliver

      Reply
      1. Claire 'Word by Word'

        Oh yes, Elizabeth Strout has a similar penetrative skill, insights into the nuanced behaviours of her characters that bring them to life from the opening pages. I love it when characters arrive that like in the first few pages and we are carried away like that.

        Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          Yes, that’s it exactly! Characters that seem ‘real’ and fully formed from the word go. I recall a former colleague at the bookshop saying how she considered Elizabeth Strout to be the closest to Elizabeth Taylor — well, certainly amongst contemporary writers still working at that time. There’s something in that, I think – an ability to paint complex, deeply flawed characters in such a believable way.

          Reply
  3. Radz Pandit

    This does sound rather wonderful Jacqui! Another Elizabeth Taylor novel to look forward too. I had the impression that The Sleeping Beauty was among her lesser novels, so I am glad that you found it compelling. I am beginning to think that every novel of hers is worth reading, she’s such a marvellous writer.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Well, that had been my impression too before I started reading it. Oddly enough, I think it might end up being one of my favourites, although there are so many strong contenders for that category as it is. Some other readers have criticised it for containing so many unlikeable characters, but that doesn’t bother me in the slightest. I’m more interested in whether they feel realistic and emotionally truthful, if that makes some kind of sense. I preferred it to In a Summer Season, for example, which I know is a favourite amongst some Taylor aficionados…

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      She’s amazing. Her insight into character and human nature is such a pleasure to observe. I genuinely think you’d find her interesting, Brian, especially given your love of character-driven fiction. The Sleeping Beauty probably wouldn’t be my first choice as a suitable entry point for anyone new to Taylor – A View of The Harbour or Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont would be better I think – but wherever you start, it’s bound to be a worthwhile experience.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Where indeed! It’s a beautiful cover, isn’t it? I do wish Virago would revert to this style of artwork for their editions, complete with gorgeous paintings, carefully chosen to complement each book. They’ve re-introduced the green spines as a nod to this classic styling, but I’d love to see them go the whole hog on the design front!

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      That’s probably the one I’d most like to re-read, mainly because I can’t recall anything about it.
      A case of poor timing on my part, I suspect…

      Reply
  4. Simon T

    I thought I’d read this novel until I started reading your review – clearly I haven’t! So glad it turned out to be a good one. I don’t think I’ve read much Taylor that was romantic, usually more about disillusion, so am intrigued. Love this edition, like everyone else has!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      There’s a darkness to the ‘romance’ element, something with the potential to disrupt as well as unite (which probably comes through in the quote at the end). I agree with you about Taylor’s ability to capture the sense of disillusionment within a marriage – it’s there in Mrs Lippincote’s and The Soul of Kindness, to name just two. Nevertheless, it’s interesting to see a couple at a different stage in their relationship here, in the first flushes of love before other competing forces begin to kick in!

      Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          Ah, thank you. Fremlin’s on my list of writers to try, hopefully at some point this year. (Your review of Appointment with Yesterday is in my feed, but I haven’t had a chance to read it yet.)

          Reply
  5. kaggsysbookishramblings

    Lovely review Jacqui – she’s such a nuanced writer, isn’t she? And you’re right, this one doesn’t get the attention of her other books but I thought it was excellent. Looking back on my post on it (which in retrospect probably reveals far too many plot details) I see how impressed I was with her characterisation, and also those bombshell moments she drops into all of her books. She’s still a seriously underrated author!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, wonderful. I must go back and take a look at your review, hopefully tomorrow when I’ll have a bit more time. And yes, she’s great with set-pieces and scenes. I could almost see this one playing out inside my head, in the style of a character-driven drama at the theatre!

      Reply
  6. heavenali

    Lovely review. This is one of Elizabeth Taylor’s novels I have only read once. I should make time to revisit it. I remember it as one I liked less than the others but that was some years ago.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I’d love to hear what you think of it now! Oddly enough, I actually prefer it to In a Summer Season, which I know many other Taylor readers love. The ending of IASS just seemed a bit too melodramatic to me, especially when I look back on it from a distance…

      Reply
  7. Jane

    I haven’t read anything by Elizabeth Taylor yet, definitely something I need to put right and I love the name Seething for a village!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      It’s a great name, isn’t? Quite deliberate, I suspect! A location that harbours some strong emotions amidst the washed-out beauty of the setting.

      Reply
  8. Julé Cunningham

    Seething sounds like the perfect name for the place that contains these characters and relationships! I can understand why you found the book so involving, it does sound very appealing indeed.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, she must be making a point with that name, especially given Rose’s bitterness towards her sister. There’s also quite a bit of gossiping between Isabella and her best friend as they exchange betting tips and other related information. – both enjoy a flutter on the horses on a fairly regular basis!

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Liz. I’ve reached the rationing stage with her books right now with only three left to read (for the first time at least)! That said, it might to interesting to revisit one or two favourites at some point to see how my impressions have changed…

      Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          I’ve been reading the stories in their individual collections. Just The Devastating Boys to go now, (although there’s also Dangerous Calm, which seems to include a couple of different stories unavailable elsewhere).

          Reply
  9. Pingback: A-Z Index of Book Reviews (listed by author) | JacquiWine's Journal

  10. buriedinprint

    Maybe part of the reason that this title isn’t mentioned more often stems to earlier availability/printing issues, so that it’s more a matter of fewer people having read some of her so-called minor works than of their being minor? What would we do, had Virago not reprinted so many of her books. Like you, and Karen, and possibly others, I thought this one was remarkable. In my files of quotations, its one with substantially more quotes than the others (Palladian was also heavy note-taking for me).

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes! It’s brilliant, isn’t it? The more I think about it, the better it gets. Like you, I had a whole bunch of passages marked up in my notes by the time I’d finished reading it – way too many for me to include in a review, but that’s definitely the sign of a nuanced book. I’m also very interested to hear you say that about Palladian. That book didn’t fly for me when I read it a few years ago, so I’m seriously thinking of giving it another go. You’re one of three or four trusted readers who have spoken very highly of it in the last six months – so much so that I think my brain must have been somewhere else altogether when I picked it up!

      Reply
      1. buriedinprint

        You’re not alone in not having connected with Palladian, but I do think that you’ll find it quite a different book when/if you return to it. There is a single short story of Taylor’s that is often remarked upon as sharp and strange amongst the rest (I don’t want to name it because it’s delightful to fall into the surprise of it) and I think Palladian is like that, among her novels.

        Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          That’s interesting. I’m wondering if the story you’re referring to is The Fly-Paper? I’ve heard that it’s very unsettling – and quite different to most of Taylor’s other work!

          Reply

Leave a comment or reply - I'd love to hear your thoughts

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.